Early Mississippi Converts Leave a Proud Legacy
Contributed By Marlon Browning, Church News contributor
- Sarah Jane Cowart was 68 years old when she was baptized in 1915.
- She was one of the earliest converts in Mississippi.
- Nearly 300 of her descendants have been born in the Church, and 45 have served missions.
It was a typical warm, humid day in Kirby, Mississippi, on April 23, 1915, when a dozen people gathered at a nearby creek to witness the baptism of five people into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Henry Melling Jones of Enoch, Utah, waited in the creek as Sarah Jane Cowart, the 68-year-old matriarch of the Cowart family, came forward and was baptized into her newly found faith. Her age and upbringing in the Bible Belt made it a significant event. Elders Carlos Smith Higgins of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, and James Leo Walker of Iona, Idaho, waited to assist with the confirmations into the Church.
Sarah Jane had been a widow for almost six years. She and her husband, Zachariah Cowart, had married in 1863. During the Civil War, he had been sent to a prison camp in Rock Island, Illinois, where he survived 15 months of hunger and disease.
Of the 10 children born to Zachariah and Sarah Cowart, one was also named Sarah Jane. This Sarah, along with her husband, Robert D. Rowland, their daughter, Amber, and her nephew, Edgar Whitehead, were baptized on the same day.
Sometime before 1919, Robert and Sarah Jane Rowland moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they helped establish the Church in that city. Meeting in his home with his large family and a few others, Robert D. Rowland organized a small Sunday School in 1924. It grew so that in the 1930s and 1940s, it met in a bakery, City Hall building, and elementary school auditorium, until the members moved into their own building in 1949. A Baton Rouge Branch had been organized in 1941, followed by the creation of a ward in 1955 on the same day of the creation of the New Orleans Stake. In 1969, a stake was created in Baton Rouge, and the crowning joy came when President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a temple located directly behind the Baton Rouge stake center in 2000.
Sarah Jane Meredith Cowart enjoyed her new faith for five years until she died suddenly in 1920. She was buried in a remote cemetery near Kirby next to her husband, who had died in 1909. Due to the deterioration of the tombstones over the years, a new one was placed between the graves in 2004 with a set of scriptures engraved on one side and a Civil War cannon on the other.
Having remained firm in her faith and often feeding missionaries, Sarah Jane Rowland died in 1946. Robert D. Rowland continued active until his death in 1962. Over 300 Cowart and Rowland descendants have been born into the faith. Among these, 47 missions have been served by 45 individuals with many more to come.
—Brother Marlon Browning is from the Mount Lewis 3rd Ward, Ogden Utah Mt. Lewis Stake.